The Washington Wizards entered last night's game against a nine-man Los Angeles Clippers team that was minus three starters and was playing its fifth game in a week. Plus, it was the Clippers.

And Washington lost, 98-89, before 11,753 at MCI Center.

The Clippers used a barrage of first-half three-pointers and clutch plays in the final minute and a half to end any hopes the Wizards had of building upon Thursday's impressive victory over the Toronto Raptors.

"We ran into a hot team tonight," Wizards Coach Gar Heard said. "The effort was much better in the second half. The first half we didn't rotate out enough to get to the shooters and they made a lot of wide-open shots. We had opportunities. We stopped them three times in a row near the end and couldn't come up with the ball. Once we finally get the rebound, we turned it over and everything magnified."

Though Heard did not blame his team's performance on the attention surrounding point guard Rod Strickland's failure to practice this week--which was the reason he didn't start last night--Heard said it was a distraction.

"We have to get back on the right track and start thinking basketball instead of everything else," Heard said.

Strickland scored five points and dished out five assists in 26 minutes. Starter Chris Whitney scored seven points with four assists. Both fell victim to Clippers' point guard Troy Hudson, who scored 22 points and made 4 of 8 three-pointers.

His back-court mate, Eric Piatkowski, scored a game-high 25 points and made 4 of 6 three-pointers.

"We only played seven players," Piatkowski said. "It was real nice to come in here and get this win."

Washington forward Juwan Howard had a team-high 19 points. Forward Aaron Williams, who led the charge that brought Washington to within three late in the fourth quarter, added 15. Center Ike Austin had 14 points and 12 rebounds and guard Mitch Richmond had 13 points off the bench.

Austin's 18-foot jump shot with 1 minute 50 seconds left brought the Wizards, who trailed by 17, to 92-89. But Hudson's long-range jump shot on Los Angeles's next possession was the final dagger.

Howard missed a six-foot jump shot and Williams could not control the tip on Washington's best opportunity to close the gap in the waning seconds, ending the Wizards' hopes of winning their first back-to-back games since April 16. The loss dropped Washington to 2-8; the Clippers improved to 3-7.

"We let them get a big lead, which is kind of our trademark, then we battled back," Williams said. "We have to find a way to play better down the stretch in the fourth quarter."

Los Angeles knocked down 8 of 14 three-point shots to take a 56-41 lead at halftime. The mark tied the most three-pointers an opponent has made against Washington in a half.

"This was a setback," Strickland said.

This was the second time this season Strickland came off the bench. The first came in a Nov. 10 loss to visiting Seattle, when Heard disciplined Strickland for arriving late to practice the previous day. Strickland, who entered the game with 4:02 left in the first quarter, was informed that he would not start after the morning shoot-around in a meeting with Heard. Both were agitated after the meeting, with Strickland opting not to respond to reporters' questions.

There was speculation that Strickland's inability to practice was merely a tactic to force a trade. Strickland declined to comment before the game when asked if he wanted to be traded. He did say that he missed the team's last two practices because he legitimately was not healthy.

"If I'm hurt I'm hurt," Strickland said.

Strickland went on: "This is the most frustrating season I've had since I've been here. I'm struggling."

Heard said that if Strickland is able to practice when the team works out Monday, he will regain his starting position for Tuesday's game against visiting Vancouver. However, Strickland has no room for error.

"If he's going to be late every day he won't start," Heard said. "At some point you've got to draw the line. Rod's either going to be a part of this team like everyone else or he's not. I tell all the players the same thing."

Though there is mounting speculation that Washington has started shopping Strickland, a league source with knowledge denied the Wizards are active in the trade market. Because the season is so young, it is believed that any current friction between Strickland and Heard could be smoothed out, at least in regards to how both men handle their jobs, the source said.